What is Mindfulness?
Mindfulness as a ‘buzz word’ has increased in popularity over the past decade.
At the time of writing a quick Google search returned 227 million articles.
A search on Amazon revealed 200,000 mindfulness related products. These range from books, apps, journals and even wearable technology to help us be more mindful. The mindfulness industry is booming.
However, here are a lot of misconceptions about the meaning of mindfulness.
The Grandfather of secular mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as:
“Paying attention, in a particular kind of way: on purpose and non-judgementally”
Breaking this description into its three components, mindfulness is:
- Paying Attention
- On Purpose
- Without Judgement
1. Mindfulness is Paying Attention
Have you ever sat down with a packet of crisps and the next thing you know you are holding an empty packet. You wonder to yourself, where have all the crisps have gone?
Have you ever pulled into your driveway and not been able to remember your drive home from work? That is because you have slipped into ‘autopilot’ mode. You stopped paying attention to what you are doing and your brain is operating on automatic pilot.
Sometimes operating on autopilot is a good thing. When you are learning a new skill, like driving a car, you are constantly having to think about what you are doing. You consciously walk through the steps of mirror, signal, manoeuvre before you pull away from the kerb.
But after you have been driving for a while you no longer have to think about the different steps. They become a habit and you operate on autopilot.
But what happens when you go through your life operating on autopilot?
A Harvard Gazette study, ‘A Wandering Mind Is Not A Happy Mind’ , found that participants were distracted 47% of their waking hours. They spent 47% of their time thinking about something other than what they were doing. Either rehashing past events or planning what they would do in the future.
When we are not thinking about what we are doing then we run the risk of missing out on what is right in front of us. The only thing that exists is the moment that we are in.
2. Mindfulness is Being On Purpose
Paying attention on purpose is key to mindfulness. We make the deliberate and conscious decision to direct our attention.
When we are on autopilot we get carried away with our thought processes. When we are mindful we make the decision to place our attention exactly where we choose.
For example, if we have a conversation with our spouse or partner we can choose to focus 100% of our attention on them. We don’t get distracted by watching TV, checking our phone our writing our to do list for the next day.
3. Mindfulness is Being Non-Judgemental
Our inner critic is our greatest enemy. We wouldn’t dream of talking to our friends and family in the way that we often speak to ourselves. Yet we still do.
When we are being mindful we are not trying to suppress or control our thoughts. We pay attention to our experiences as they arise without judging or labelling them. We become the interested observer of our own thoughts.
The more we practice observing our thoughts, the less likely we are to get caught up in them. And caught up in the cycle of beating ourselves up because things are not turning out as we had hoped or planned.
Mindfulness in Action In The Real World
To give a real world example, meet Jane.
Jane is in a team meeting and puts forward a suggestion of how the team could work more effectively. Jane thinks her suggestion is awesome and would help the team to work more efficiently and more effectively. It quickly becomes clear to Jane that her colleagues and her team leader do not feel the same way about her suggestion. In fact, they look distinctly unimpressed.
Jane has been practicing mindfulness for a while and approaches the situation mindfully. She pays attention to what is going on in the room, taking notice of what people are saying and how they are reacting. She actively listens to the feedback that she is given and doesn’t jump to conclusions or make assumptions based on one comment.
Jane recognises and acknowledges that she feels disappointed that the team won’t be progressing with her idea. And while she doesn’t enjoy the uneasy feeling of disappointment she has in the pit of her stomach, she understands and knows what she is experiencing.
When Jane gets home that evening she feels pleased with herself. She thinks back to the Jane of a year ago (before she discovered mindfulness) and can imagine how that Jane would have reacted in the same situation. S
he would have been angry at her team mates for not agreeing with her. She would have taken their feedback personally and decided this was one more example of how she is ‘not good enough’.
What a long way she has come! What if we could all be a bit more like Jane?
What if we could spend more time focusing on the here and now rather than rehashing the past or planning for the future?
What if we could accept ourselves for exactly what we are at this moment in time?
What if we could treat ourselves and those around us with patience and compassion?
Through practicing mindfulness, you get to know yourself. You take the time to study your feelings, to understand who you are. And you are better able to acknowledge and focus on the present moment and accept it for what it is without judging anything or anyone.
Why Practice Mindfulness?
Modern life is busy.. exceptionally busy… and the pace of life isn’t going to ease up any time soon. For many of us life has become an endless, exhausting to-do list. We juggle work (often with an energy draining commute), family commitments, exercise, social life etc etc. Only to wake up again the next day to do it all over again.
Tony Crabbe, business psychologist and author of Busy says “People are running ther lives at breakneck speed and don’t have the energy or perspective to step back and see if there’s a different way of doing things.”
Developing our ability to focus on the present moment can be the opportunity to get that perspective and do things in a different way.
The Benefits of Mindfulness
The scientific interest into mindfulness is on the rise. 10 papers were published in 2000, rising to 667 by 2016. Attitudes towards mindfulness have shifted in the scientific research community. Two decades ago focusing on mindfulness was considered career suicide. Today this work is considered innovative and cutting edge.
Over the past 20 years scientific studies have proven that mindfulness:
- Helps to decrease anxiety, stress, depression, exhaustion and irritability if practiced regularly. (1)
- Improves your memory (2) and enhances your focus and attention (3).
- Reduces insomnia and increases both physical and mental energy (4).
- Is incredibly effective for pain management.(5)
- Reduces average pain ‘unpleasantness’ levels by 57 per cent while accomplished meditators report reductions of up to 93 per cent. (6)
- Is a highly effective way of treating clinical level depression. Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is one of the preferred treatments recommended by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence. It has been proven to reduce the reoccurrence rate of depression by 40-50% and to be as effective as anti-depressants. (7)
- Reduces addictive and self-destructive behaviour. (8)
- Improves health and boosts the immune system. (9)
- Improves your emotional intelligence and helps you to develop empathy and compassion. (10)
In short, the more mindful you are the happier (and in many cases) the healthier you are. (11) Helping you make mindfulness part of your daily life References
Mindfulness is not a fad. It works and there is a wealth of scientific evidence to prove it.
What Mindfulness is Not
Mindfulness is not:
Religious – it has roots in religion, predominantly Buddhism, however in Mindfulness for Busy People we practice secular mindfulness.
Clearing the mind – it is impossible to clear your mind. Instead you will learn to pay attention to what is going on in your mind and respond rather than react to it.
Relaxation – you may well find mindfulness practice relaxing or you might not! Stress reduction – although it can help us to relate to stress in a different way
Striving to achieve a particular state – with mindfulness we move from ‘doing’ to ‘being’. When we practice mindfulness we are not trying to achieve anything other than what is at that particular moment.
A magic wand!
The Opposite of Mindfulness
The opposite of mindfulness is operating in automatic pilot mode. When we are in autopilot mode we do things without thinking and unknowingly repeat our behaviours.
Autopilot can be very helpful as it allows us to extend our working memory by creating habits. If we repeat something more than a few times, the mind links together all of the actions needed to complete a task and therefore we use less brainpower.
For example, when we learned to drive we had to think through the steps required to pull away from the kerb. As an experienced driver we can do this without thinking.
On the flip side, autopilot can mean that we are less efficient. For example, we can spend hours mindless scrolling through our phone. Forgetting why we picked it up in the first place.
Running on Automatic Pilot
When we have a lot on our mind then it is easier for us to slip into autopilot mode. As your mind fills up with the trials and tribulations of daily life there is less space available for your working memory.
It’s a bit like when your computer gets slower and slower with the more tabs you have open and the more files you have saved on your desktop. At first you don’t notice it but eventually the computer becomes slower and slower and might even crash. At the point you might need to defragment your computer.
Practicing mindfulness can do the same thing for your brain! The busier that we get then we can give more control to our automatic pilot.
Habits trigger thoughts, which trigger more thoughts which trigger more habitual thoughts.
Negative thoughts and feelings can form themselves into patterns which only heighten your emotions towards them. Before you know it you can be left feeling overwhelmed and stressed.
We don’t want to get rid of autopilot but we do want to become aware of when we slip into autopilot mode.
What is Mindfulness Meditation?
The words mindfulness and meditation are often used interchangeably. I believe it is important to maintain a distinction between the two.
Mindfulness refers to a way of being where we focus our attention on the present moment. It is possible to practice mindfulness without meditating. In fact our ultimate goal is to be mindful in our daily lives. This is referred to as ‘in the moment’ mindfulness practice.
Practicing mindfulness in the moment is simple. We need to stop, notice and pay attention to our thoughts, emotions and body sensations, on purpose and without judgement. You can be on the train, walking to work, standing in the queue at the checkout…..anywhere.
Meditation refers to a specific activity that we can do to maintain our focus on the present moment. This is called ‘dedicated’ mindfulness practice.
Imagine you were teaching your child to ride a bike. You would take them to a quiet spot. You would make sure that they were wearing a helmet and perhaps even elbow and shoulder pads. You would create the best possible conditions for your child to be successful. This is exactly what you are doing when you meditate.
You are practicing the art of noticing your thoughts in a completely safe environment. At the same time, you are building your mental muscle.
Meditation provides a safe, quiet environment to help you practice noticing your thoughts. In the course of a normal day, with the hustle and bustle of daily life it becomes harder to notice and pay attention.
But with daily meditation practice it becomes easier. And with continued practice it becomes second nature.
How Mindfulness Meditation Works
The aim of Mindfulness Meditation is to focus our attention on something. This could be our breath, a particular area of our body or on feelings and sensations. When our mind starts to wander we redirect our attention back to our point of focus. It is very simple. That is all that is required.
To meditate you need to:
1. Get in a comfortable position.
2. Close your eyes or soften your gaze.
3. Focus on your breath.
4. When your mind wanders (it will!) return attention to your breath.
5. When you are ready, open your eyes and become aware of your surroundings
Where to Meditate
You can meditate ANYWHERE. Ideally you want to find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. You may want to let family members, housemates know that you need this quiet time to yourself. Life often doesn’t work out that way.
You can meditate in the car, lying in bed, hiding in the toilet at work. Wherever you can find a few moments of calm.
There are lots of Mindfulness Apps available to help support your mindfulness journey. Some suggestions:
Created by a trained Tibetan monk, Andy Puddiscombe. There is a free 10 day introductory meditation program and a further paid option. The paid option includes content packs covering a range of topics including relationships and health. $12,95 a month after the free introductory program.
Created by Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier: Meditation for Fidgety Sceptics 10% Happier contains guided meditations and video training from some of the world’s leading mindfulness experts. You can complete a 7 day free trial before signing up to the app for $12.95 a month.
Holistrio is designed to help you improve your wellbeing through relaxation, meditation and mindfulness. Whether you are a complete beginner or have previous experience, Holistrio helps you learn the skills needed to relax, boost confidence, sleep and much more.
Here is my my interview with Holistrio’s founder Andrew Johnston.
Insight Timer is completely free. You can use the timer for self guided meditation. Or you can follow along to one of the thousands of guided meditations. You are also able to see who is meditating at the same time as you and join ‘communities’ which is particularly useful if you enjoy meditating with other people.
There are a number of podcasts focused on the topic of Mindfulness. Here are my Top 10 Mindfulness Podcasts.
I have also recorded a number of episodes of The Good Life Well Lived Podcast on the subject of Mindfulness:
Episode 4 – Mindfulness –What Is It And Is It Just a Fad?
Episode 31 – The Simple Path to Relaxation with Andrew Johnson
Episode 44 – 5 Minutes That Can Change Your Day